Sunday, June 24, 2007

Not Just “Illegals”

Looking at the question [of immigration restriction] from the point of view of the good of the greatest number, there arises a grave suspicion that America has been, or at any rate can easily be, permanently injured by too liberal and long continued an admixture of unskilled handworkers who belong to poor racial stocks and whose steady infiltration not only fills our asylums and jails, but tends to deteriorate our native stock. ~ Excerpt from "Keep on Guarding the Gates" Current Opinion, June 1923, pp. 652-4. (OSU: Immigration Restriction & the Ku Klux Klan)

My post yesterday, So You Are Thinking About Coming to the U.S. of A., was not intended to deal primarily with “illegal” immigration. In truth, for over 150 years, the majority of immigrants to the United States who were not WASPs (White, Anglo-Saxon, Protestants) have faced bigotry and prejudice in this land that supposedly welcomes all of the tired, poor, and huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Here is a lesson from the history of my home town, Louisville, Kentucky. Election Day, August 6, 1855, in Louisville has come to be known as Bloody Monday. The blood spilled was primarily that of German and Irish immigrants. Those who spilt the blood were members of the Know-Nothing Party (movement), who were committed to wiping out "foreign influence, Popery, Jesuitism, and Catholicism."

Flag of the Know-Nothing Party

The Know Nothing movement was a nativist American political movement of the 1850s. It grew up as a popular reaction to fears that major cities were being overwhelmed by Irish Catholic immigrants whom they regarded as hostile to American values and controlled by the Pope in Rome. It was a short-lived movement mainly active 1854–56; it demanded reform measures but few were passed. There were few prominent leaders, and the membership, mostly middle-class and Protestant apparently was soon absorbed by the Republican Party in the North.

The movement originated in New York in 1843 when it was called the American Republican Party. It spread to other states as the Native American Party and became a national party in 1845. In 1855 it renamed itself the American Party. The origin of the "Know Nothing" term was in the semi-secret organization of the party. When a member was asked about its activities, he was supposed to reply, "I know nothing." ~ From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Know-Nothing mobs burnt a convent and murdered a nun in Massachusetts in 1834, destroyed two churches in New England in 1854, and, that same year, tarred-and-feathered, and nearly killed Father John Bapst, a Swiss-born Jesuit teaching in Maine and ministering to the Passamaquoddy Indians and Irish immigrants, as well as to other Catholics, including former Protestants who'd converted under his influence.

On August 6, 1855, the Know Nothings led a riot in Louisville that has come to be known as one of the deadliest anti-immigrant riots in American history. The Know Nothing Party especially feared that Catholic immigrants from Germany and Ireland threatened Protestantism and democracy. By 1854, the party claimed a million members nationwide and led Jefferson County (Louisville) government. On Bloody Monday, a Know Nothing mob attacked German immigrants east of downtown Louisville and Irish immigrants in the west, causing at least 22 deaths, injuring perhaps 150, burning buildings, and looting. The Catholic Cathedral of the Assumption and St. Martin's Church were threatened with destruction.

Prejudice and bigotry did not end with the demise of the Know Nothing party and its absorption by the Republican Party. Bigotry against immigrants has continued to the present day, although the ethnic, racial and religious groups targeted have changed. In the mid-19th Century, the targets were primarily Irish and German Roman Catholics. Later in the Century, it was the Chinese.

In the early 20th Century, the targets were Italians and Eastern Europeans. A frightful footnote to this bigotry was the case of Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti, two working-class Italian immigrants in post-World War I Boston who joined the anarchist movement, fueled the Leftist cause of the 1920s. The two were convicted and executed in 1927 as the perpetrators in a Boston-area burglary and double murder. The judge said, “If these two did not commit the crime, then it was committed by men such as these.” In 1977, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis issued a proclamation asserting that Sacco and Vanzetti had been treated unjustly.

During the Depression years, all immigrants were targeted. (That included my mother’s family, even though they were German Protestant). They were seen as taking jobs from Americans—i.e., the descendents of immigrants who had come to the United States in previous years.

During World War II, bigotry was strangely directed toward Japanese- Americans much more than German Americans.

In the post-World War II years during the anti-Communist hysteria, immigration restrictions were aimed at individuals and groups though to have “un-American” philosophies, especially Jews.

During and following the Vietnam era, intolerance of Southeast Asians was prevalent. Today, again as a result of a war, that same bigotry is aimed at Muslims.

This issue of the new immigration debate does not simply relate to “Illegals.” There is a large and growing bigotry in the U.S. against Hispanic people. This intolerance is based on several factors, not least of which is that Spanish is becoming a “second language” in the United States. Also included, is that historic WASP prejudice against Roman Catholics, as well as the Depression fear that “they are taking our jobs”:

"They" are stealing jobs, as opposed to filling jobs that often go begging to be filled. "They" are accused of being a drain on taxpayers without recognition of the economic contributions made to the state through production, wages and taxes. "They" are charged with contaminating our culture, without acknowledgment of all the contributions they have already made by our assimilation of their foods, art and language ~ Ron Eachus in the Salem, Oregon, Statesman-Journal

For me, a liberal White Anglo-Saxon Protestant, the primary immigration issue continues to be bigotry, as it has been in the United States for over 150 years since it raised it ugly head with the Know Nothing Party. So I welcome all who want to live in this land of the free and sing this song by Peter, Paul, and Mary to those who withhold that welcome:

Listen, Mr. Bilbo (Mr. Bigot)

Listen, Mr. Bigot, listen to me, I'll give you a lesson in history
Listen while I tell you that the foreigners you hate
Are the very same people made America great.
Oh listen Mr. Bigot, uh-huh...listen Mr. Bigot
In 1492, just to see what he could see
Columbus, who was an Italian set out across the sea
He said "Isabella, baby, the world is round
And the USA's just awaitin' to be found."
Oh listen Mr. Bigot, (well, some of my best friends are)
Listen Mr. Bigot (oh, they like to live with their own kind)
Well when the King of England started pushin' Yanks around
They had a little trouble up in Boston town
But a brave, black, Crispus Attucks was the man
The first one to fall when the fightin' began.
Oh listen Mr. Bigot,
(They can't help it. It's their cultural point of view)
Listen Mr. Bigot (They all look alike to me!)
Now Bigot, you're taking one hell of a chance
Your good friends the Duponts, came over from France
Another thing I'm sure will be news to you
The first Mr. Bigot was a foreigner too.
You don't like blacks, you don't like jews
Well if there's anyone you do like, it sure is news
You don't like Poles, Hispanics too
Anyway they serve you up, we don't like you
Oh listen Mr. Bigot,
(Well there we were on the beach, just trying to get some sun
And up comes a busload of them, well first they got these boxes that play this music, I mean it's not even in English.
Then they take out these stoves or hibachi's or something
The smoke was dreadful, the smell was even worse.
I wouldn't let my daughter marry one, ya know?)
Listen Mr. Bigot


  1. Sure. No Irish need apply, etc. etc. etc.

    We have a long, inglorious history or persecution. It seems to be the Hispanic's turn in the barrel.

  2. Lots of stories were told when I attended parochial school in Louisville about Bloody Monday. Like that Catherine Spalding, the nun who founded the Sisters of Charity, stood alone before the know nothing mob and kept them from burning down Assumption Church.

  3. Great post on an unfortunate subject, Nick - history repeating itself.

    Thanks for the education.